Computers, the Internet, and biotechnology have all driven past stock market gains, but could the next big thing be as close as the kitchen sink?

Water has received a lot of press lately. A recent New York Times' piece raised the possibility that the American West is returning to its normal dry state after a short wet period in the twentieth century. After five years of drought, several Western states are bracing for potential water shortages. Meanwhile, a Chicago Tribune article yesterday covered a growing debate over large-scale desalination projects in California designed to support ongoing growth and development.

Desalination, long used in parched countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, has become more cost-effective in recent years. As a result, and in part simply due to necessity, state and local authorities across the U.S. are exploring the possibility of more widespread use of the technology.

So, does removing salt from H2O hold water as an investment idea? The domestic trend is still in its infancy, but a number of credible companies could see gains if it takes off. The segment includes filter companies Ionics (NYSE:ION) and Pall (NYSE:PLL), focused players VeoliaEnvironnement (NYSE:VE) and Pentair (NYSE:PNR), and diversified outfits Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW), General Electric's (NYSE:GE) Water Technologies, and ITT Industries' (NYSE:ITT) Fluid Technologies Group, among others.

At the moment, the industry is relatively fragmented, but this may change if desalination continues to gain traction. Given that these firms have to deal with the vagaries of local and regional politics, size and financial heft may be a distinct advantage. That said, a large player like GE could spark a wave of consolidation if it decides to make a move. With these possibilities, investors might consider dipping their toes in.

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Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer living in Chicago, Ill. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned here.